December 28, 2013

Reflections: Resolving to learn French as a spirtual practice

By Susan Lebel Young

Every year I make a New Year’s resolution to study French. Again. Mostly I start. I take an adult education class. I listen to CDs in the car. I do a few minutes of Rosetta Stone every day. But when the verb tenses go further than my knowledge, I quit. “It’s too hard,” I tell myself. “Why bother? Who cares? I’m not going to live in France or work in a French-speaking country. It’s not wise, not with all the time, money and energy it takes. It’s not sane given that I’ll never be proficient.”

I have a few answers to “why bother?” One is simple: to test my aging mind. “This French thing,” as it has come to be called by loved ones, gains credibility with neuroscience’s findings about our brain’s neuroplasticity. I can help protect myself from cognitive loss – at least cut the risk – by learning a language.

But this yearning for French is bigger than health-related and more than fear-based. With French-speaking maternal grandparents Bernadette and Auguste who came from Westbrook, and paternal grandparents Lucien and Victorine from Lewiston, my heritage keeps pulling at my heartstrings. “You can do this, Susan. You should do this, Susan.”

Jews have an expression, L’Dor Vador, about keeping traditions alive by passing them from one generation to the next. L’Dor Vador reminds me to be grateful to my ancestors (those before Auguste, Bernadette, Lucien and Victorine had the names Pierre, Ferdinand, Eustazade, Albertine, Treffle and Ullaly). L’Dor Vador teaches me to keep the circle of life going. My “French thing” comes more from feeling than from reason. I want to study French as a spiritual practice.

Trouble is, spiritual practices take work. Spiritual practices are not about studying and getting A’s. I’m good at that. Spiritual practices ask for dedication over time and discipline through difficulties. I’m not so good at that. When the going gets tough, I am not so good at it sticking with self-imposed vows. I am not good at not being good at what I ache to be good at.

So I looked for spiritual teachers who might have words of wisdom to help improve my chances of persisting with my New Year’s resolution, which is to keep on keepin’ on with French all year, whether I am good or not, whether I feel confident or not, whether I am prepared for the lessons or not. I found some teachers. Renowned seventh century Zen master Seng-tsan said to practice “being without anxiety about imperfection.” Ahhh, that feels freeing. And current-day teacher Brene Brown says that the courage to be imperfect lifts the pressure from our unrealistic expectations. If I am going to continue with French, not kick myself out of class for lack of stellar performances, I need these heart-opening reminders.

And I’ll need more. Two of my friends, both from France, both who moved here 20 years ago, recently told me that they do not always speak correct English grammar or with right word-choice, that they don’t expect to, that they muddle through the language some days doing the best they can, and that sometimes Americans laugh at their slip-ups. They advised, “Let go of being fluent and just show up for class.”

Indeed that great teacher Woody Allen said, “Ninety percent of life is just showing up.”

So I am adopting what cultural anthropologist Angeles Arrien has found in her cross-cultural studies to be four universal spiritual principles. She calls them the four-fold way, a method for “walking a spiritual path with practical feet:” 1. Show up or choose to be present (I will go to French class). 2. Pay attention to what has heart and meaning (L’Dor Vador, because my heart is connected to my family tree). 3. Tell the truth without blame or judgment (Truth is I will want to give up. No fair criticizing myself for that). 4. Be open to outcome, not attached to outcome. (The benefits of committing to spiritual practice are at least as important and transformative as speaking French, non?)

Susan Lebel Young is the author of “Lessons From a Golfer: A Daughter’s Story of Opening the Heart” and “Food Fix: Ancient Nourishment for Modern Hungers.” She can be reached through or at:

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